Foster Care: Background and History

The placement of children in foster care homes is a concept that goes as far back as the Torah and Bible, which refers to caring for dependent children as a duty under law. The Quran carried on this tradition of caring for orphans and widows. Early Christian church records indicate orphaned children lived with widows who were paid by the church. Read on to learn more about the history of foster care in the United States.

History of Foster Care in the United States

English Poor Laws in the 1500s allowed for the placement of poor children into indentured service until they became adults. This practice was imported to the United States and marked the beginning of placing children into foster homes. Even though indentured service permitted exploitation, it was an improvement over almshouses where children didn't learn a trade and were exposed to unsanitary conditions and abusive caretakers.

At this time, children were placed into these homes because their parents or guardians were deceased rather than because they had been abused in their home, as child abuse was largely socially accepted and legal. Today, foster children are usually removed from a home due to abuse rather than because they were orphaned. For more information, see the Child Abuse Background and History article.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace, a minister, founded the Children's Aid Society in New York City. Brace saw many immigrant children sleeping in the streets. Mr. Brace started the Orphan Train Movement were over 150,000 orphaned children in New York City were sent by train to farms across the country, primarily in the Midwest. Once sent to the farms, some children were treated with love and respect, while others were treated as slaves, were abused, and were often required to work long hours. Nevertheless, as the emphasis was on giving abandoned and abused children a family life, Brace's system became the foundation for today's foster care system.

Foster homes in New York City in the 1800s were often abusive. In 1807, an 8-year-old orphan named Mary Ellen Wilson received daily whippings and beatings at her foster home. There was no organization to protect abused children, so the attorneys for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) took on her case. Her attorneys argued that laws protecting animals from abuse shouldn’t be greater than laws protecting children. Mary Ellen Wilson’s case went to court and the foster mom was convicted of assault and battery and given a 1 year sentence.

In the early 1900s, social agencies began to pay and supervise foster parents. The government began state inspections of foster homes. Records were kept to increase accountability and children's needs were considered when placements were made. In addition, services were provided to birth families to enable the child to reunify or return home. Foster parents began to be seen as an integral part of a team effort to provide for dependent children.

Foster Care in the United States Today

Today, children in foster care can be placed in several different types of foster homes. One type of home is the single foster family of one or more parents who cares for up to six foster children in their home with their own biological or adopted children. Another type of foster care is the group home. Historically, group foster homes were rife with abuse of children. Currently, they are better regulated and monitored than in the past.

The third modern foster home is called kinship care. Kinship care is when foster children to be placed in the home of a relative or person who knew the child before he or she was removed from the home. The kinship foster care provider receives the emotional and financial support a foster parent would receive from a foster care agency, but already has an established relationship with the child.

If you are considering becoming a foster parent, read the Foster Parent Requirements and How to Foster a Child articles.

Ask an Attorney About Your Foster Care Concerns

The use of foster care in various societies throughout history reflects an ongoing social concern for the well-being of children. While it has thankfully improved over time, these improvements have also made the process a little more complicated due to the rules and regulations that apply in different states. If you're interested in participating in the foster care program where you live, you can always speak with an experienced family law attorney to learn more about the laws of your state. 

Next Steps

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